3D Printing Guns — An Important Question We Haven’t Asked Yet

The Liberator

When I opened the discussion board in my Effective Thinking class this afternoon, there was no consideration on my part that I could potentially find something thought provoking let alone relevant to my general interests.

That just doesn’t usually happen for me when it comes to college coursework outside of my major (Technology Entrepreneurship and Management), at least not since the awesome Habitable Worlds (now available for all online for FREE) course I took a few years back.

Oh, how wrong was I…

The assignment for this week was to analyze the effectiveness of a suggested solution to one of two topics. The problem/solution prompt I chose to tackle involves mass legalization of drugs to combat the mass abuse in the United States. Disclaimer: the topic is not of particular interest to me, it just happened to be the lesser of two powder kegs.

That second cultural grenade waiting to be unpinned is just as culturally relevant, but probably more divisive is —

  • Problem: Gun violence seems to have become more prevalent in recent years.
  • Solution: Outlaw the ownership of guns.

Given the emotion that this topic invokes (queue references to President Obama’s speech on gun violence), you can see why I didn’t want to throw my hat in that ring.

But then…

There I am, browsing posts, looking for a juicy nugget of introspective analysis, when I happen to actually find one. I was surprised to say the least.

The post in question, authored by Peter Alaric DeSimone, is available here.

Read through to his last section and you’ll find the words that sparked my cynical yet curious mind. There, he asks —

Is it possible that recent advancements in rapid prototyping technologies have permanently altered the world in such a way that simple mechanical objects like firearms can no longer be realistically controlled?

He answers like most of us would; yes. Home manufacturing techniques, specifically 3D printing, has made the development of firearms impossible to regulate entirely. They can no longer be controlled. With that in mind, I can’t help but ask this question —

Making a case

We know that a file hosting platform can not review every file uploaded to it. We also know that the public expects a certain level of privacy regarding its internet browsing. So, due to technical limitations and privacy concerns, cross off both file hosts and ISPs.

That leaves us with two very different choices; the individual who, at the very least, uploaded the 3D design file and the company who manufactured the printer that produced said firearm.

When it comes to the designer, arguments on both sides are as old as they are complex. Proponents argue that both the first and second amendments protect our right to create and share designs for ready-to-use firearms. Conversely, opponents cite the inability to effectively regulate such activities under existing laws and capabilities (plus all of the other arguments in the fight for stricter gun-control). For the sake of avoiding a deadlock, let’s assume that the designer is in fact protected from legal retribution in the same context that Ford isn’t liable when one of their cars is involved in a vehicular death. Designer/uploader; crossed off.

The verdict

Yes, the same reference above could be applied to the company who manufactured the 3D printer. However, there’s precedence for at least some level of regulation. Conventional printer manufacturers are required to implement a yellow-dot pattern as a way to thwart would be counterfeiters, and in telecommunications, the FCC requires wireless device manufacturers to “implement well-defined measures to ensure that certified equipment is not capable of operating with RF-controlling software for which it has not been approved.”

Does this mean that 3D printer manufacturers are going to be held responsible for the deaths caused by the weapons printed on their machines?

Probably not.

Instead, manufacturers should expect to work closely with government agencies and regulators to develop a system similar to the yellow-dot pattern. Whether this means ensuring that every item printed by a 3D printer is traceable to that printer (probably insufficient) or implementing software that identifies and blacklists firearm designs (more likely) is yet to be seen. Either way, 3D printing’s exposure continues to grow rapidly and regulators are intent on preventing it from becoming the wild-west of gun manufacturing.